In December 2015 Viktor Orbán, under American pressure, declared that no Hungarian politician who remained in office after Hungary’s occupation by German troops on March 19, 1944 could have a memorial. Prompting this declaration was the controversy over the decision of the City of Székesfehérvár to erect a statue of Bálint Homan, the anti-Semitic minister of education in the 1930s. The idea to honor Hóman with a statue ostensibly began as a local initiative, but Viktor Orbán was the real promoter of the project. The government provided a sizable amount of money to fashion a life-size statue of the corpulent education minister. The statue became a flash point in the already strained relations between Hungary and the United States, and Orbán retreated. As he explained in parliament, the reason the City of Székesfehérvár couldn’t erect a statue of Hóman was that Hóman remained a member of the Hungarian Parliament after German troops occupied Hungary. As Orbán put it, “the constitution forbids honoring anyone who collaborated with the oppressors.” He added that “for that reason, he wouldn’t support a statue for Governor Miklós Horthy either.”
One would have thought that the issue had been put to rest once and for all. So I was surprised to hear that a Horthy bust will be unveiled in Perkáta, a village situated between Székesfehérvár and Dunaújváros. There are already three Horthy busts or statues in existence: in Csókakő (2012), in Hencida (2013), and in Budapest (2013). Despite Orbán’s claim that the Hungarian constitution forbids the existence of such statues, they have not been removed. At the very least one would have hoped that no other municipality would embark on erecting an “unconstitutional” monument. But this is exactly what happened.
As opposed to the Hóman case, which turned out to be a clandestine government project, I suspect that the Perkáta affair is a genuine local blunder. Balázs Somogyi (Fidesz) has been mayor of Perkáta, a town of 4,000 inhabitants, for the last eleven years. The citizens of Perkáta are not enthralled with his performance because on the question “How satisfied are you with the work of the mayor?” he received a D+. It’s hard to fathom why they keep reelecting him. One thing is sure: he is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He accepted the offer of a free bust of Horthy from three citizens of Perkáta, who turned out to be members of the New Hungarian Guard, a far-right organization that came into being after the original Hungarian Guard was declared to be illegal. The three men assured Somogyi that the erection and unveiling of the bust would not cost the village a penny. The mayor jumped at the offer and at the earliest opportunity presented the project for approval to the town council. On April 20 the town council, without ever informing the local citizens of their decision, approved the project. The unveiling was scheduled to take place on May 20, with leaders of far-right groups in attendance.
After the opposition media got hold of the story, several organizations and parties raised objections, but the mayor confidently announced that “the erection of a memorial is a completely local issue. It is up to the people who live there.” The problem was that the people of Perkáta were never asked or even informed about the arrival of a Horthy statue. And Somogyi either was or pretended to be ignorant of Viktor Orbán’s verdict on Horthy’s veneration as an unconstitutional act.
This time, unlike in the Hóman case, a reversal took place in record time. A few hours after this confident announcement, the town council of Perkáta suddenly withdrew its permission for the erection of the bust. So, what happened? The locals learned about the unveiling of the bust from TV reports. Some of the more enterprising citizens began an anti-bust drive, which gathered several hundred signatures in no time. They didn’t want Perkáta to become like the nearby Csókakő, which is a common destination for far-right pilgrimages as a result of the statue of Horthy placed there 15 years ago.
One could say all this was nothing more than a storm in a tea pot. But the Hungarian right—and I include Fidesz here—is outraged. An incredible editorial appeared in Magyar Hírlap by Pál Dippold, a writer and journalist who is not considered to be extremist by Hungarian standards. He is just a good old Fidesz supporter whose articles appear at regular intervals. As far as he is concerned, Perkáta’s rights were violated by journalists who descended on the village and talked about Horthy’s controversial historical role. Dippold describes them as “green sharks tattooed with five-pointed stars that attacked a Hungarian carp.” The shark is of course a “liberal shark” which can easily move from a salt- to a fresh-water environment. The carp is helpless against it. If the shark metaphor weren’t graphic enough, at one point he calls independent journalists “imported pigs” who consider themselves members of the fourth estate. These imported liberal pigs/sharks attacked true democracy by going against a local decision. They managed to force their will on Perkáta. The poor Fidesz mayor’s statement about the reasons for his retreat is “poignant” when he talks about defending his people from “these strangers bent on creating a scandal.” What follows is a defense of Miklós Horthy, who was “a decent Hungarian politician who did everything he could to preserve the remnants of the country that remained after Trianon.” He was a good Hungarian, like “the inhabitants of Perkáta and its well-meaning mayor.”
As we know, at least since December 2015 erecting a statue of anyone who collaborated with the Germans, as Horthy certainly did, is not a local affair. What would Dippold say if, as a friend of mine suggested, György Moldova, a prodigious writer known for his detailed sociological nonfiction, were to offer a bust of János Kádár to be erected on a public square anywhere in the country? (Moldova is known to be a great admirer of János Kádár, whom he considers a genius and the greatest statesman of modern Hungarian history.) If some town or village took Moldova up on his offer, I would wager to say that local opinion, which Dippold finds such an important part of democracy, would no longer be the deciding factor. The locals would need to be “educated” by right-wing–well, pick your favorite cuddly animal.